British First Day Covers

An Explanation, Introduction and Guide

by Robert Murray

Giving advice on
What First Day Covers are,
Where to get them,
Their potential market values,
What affects the perceived quality of a cover,
The potential for development of an interesting collection
and How to waste money easily !

Strictly speaking, it is any envelope bearing at least one stamp, postmarked on the first day that the stamp was on sale. In more general usage it usually suggests that the envelope would have the full set of stamps if more than one was issued, and was produced by or for a collector.

There are various sources for obtaining new covers.
{a} You buy the stamps yourself, stick them on an envelope, and post them yourself. This could be done at an ordinary post office, or at one of the Philatelic Counters run by Royal Mail.
{b} You can order them from the Philatelic Bureau, the section of the Post Office that handles orders from collectors and dealers. This can be done on an incidental basis, or by taking out a subscription.
{c} You can have a subscription with a dealer, or
{d} You can buy the covers, already postmarked and through the postal system, from a dealer.

People sometimes come to me and say "I hear there's no market for British first day covers". They have obviously been given a fairly sweeping generalisation, perhaps by someone who has already tried to sell the wrong things, or to the wrong person, or at the wrong price. What I usually tell them is that there is a strong, solid, large, keen, and well funded demand for FDCs . . . . . BUT that there is also an enormous supply available. This means that usually what is good is very good, and what is bad is very bad.
If you have something scarce, something different, special, or sought after, you will find a good market, keen to buy your good items. However, more than 95% of what we are shown is very standard. Of the remaining 5% a fair proportion is still fairly standard - perhaps only one in two or three hundred covers is actually "good".
So - what is "good", and what is "standard" ?
"Good" generally means a cover which is better than the average for that period. Different periods have different standards. For example (for Great Britain), in the early period (say up to and including King George the Fifth) you are lucky to find any FDCs at all - even odd stamps on plain envelopes with hand-written addresses and non-appropriate postmarks would be pounced upon by most collectors. By the mid-1960s collectors were becoming more discerning, and a cover as just described would be seen by most as being well below par - standard good quality for this period might be a full set, well arranged on an illustrated envelope with a neat typed address (or perhaps a neat rubber stamp or label) and with a neat and complete postmark ("cancel"/"cancellation"). By the 1980s and 1990s even those standards were becoming so normal that most collectors were looking for something even better - a full set neatly arranged on an attractive illustrated cover (whether Royal Mail's or an alternative) with no address (soft pencil address being acceptable), and with a postmark appropriate to the issue (and certainly not one of those available to order from the British Philatelic Bureau).
Appropriate postmarks - This means a postmark which has been chosen to match the issue either by connection of place or name. For example a FDC with with the normal counter datestamp ("c.d.s.") of the Hope Street post office in Edinburgh has no significance for virtually any UK stamp issue, but it is one of the scarcest and most valuable for the 1976 Telephone issue (because it is the nearest PO to Alexander Graham Bell's birthplace). Similarly Penzance would be a decent postmark for the 1992 Gilbert and Sullivan issue (because of the Pirates of Penzance connection) but would be appropriate for little else. Next you have to remember that some postmarks, even if appropriate, were produced in very large quantities. First in this category come those produced as an alternative cancel by the British Philatelic Bureau. Sadly, many people have to come to the conclusion sooner or later that if it has been produced and marketed by the British Philatelic Bureau it probably isn't worth much, due to the sheer quantities available. It is all about supply and demand. If ten cover producers or dealers all think of the same bright idea of a connection for an appropriate cancel, and service a hundred covers each, when the end demand turns out to be for five hundred then there is an excess, and prices will be low. In 1986 while the Commonwealth Games were being held in Edinburgh, we serviced a number of FDCs at the mobile post office situated temporarily within the Games Village. No other significant quantities were done in this way, and these covers now sell for about 80 each retail !
Market prices
Remember two things;
{a} all prices are affected by supply and demand, and
{b} there are no fixed, or standard, market prices.
The primary market is controlled. The stamps are only issued by the Post Office, and they fix the prices. (You cannot shop about between different sub post offices to see who is selling them cheapest, can you ?)  The principal arenas for the secondary market in first day covers are {a} stamp dealers, {b} stamp auctions, {c} trade between collectors, and {d} internet auctions. You will find that prices can vary enormously between one and another, but these differences are very often due to interacting influences, most of which are caused by honest people. A dealer may buy a hundred covers at a cheap price, but only have a good market for two or three of these; another dealer might offer a good price for one cover but refuse the rest of the collection. You might be able to buy collections in auction at seemingly low prices, but you may well end up with much more than you really want. An individual collector is likely to be very selective about which covers they want although they may well pay generously for these ones. Internet auction prices are so varied as to be almost indescribable - simply if you are selling, don't overprice, then have good luck - if you are buying, don't get carried away (I have seen individual covers sell for more than ten times the price they could have been bought for from almost any stamp shop !).
[At the time of writing, we sell standard F.D.C.s in our shop as cheap as 20 per hundred retail - and that is the customer's own choice, leaving us anything dull or substandard. We also sell bundles at 15 per kilo !  In our auctions, standard collections of common FDCs sell for about 10p to 20p on average per cover.]

If you want to invest, make yourself an interesting collection (see below). DO NOT INVEST until you are entirely confident about what you are doing. If anything in this article comes as news to you, you are not ready yet. You must have more knowledge, more information, more "feel" for the market, and more experience of buying and selling the items you are investing in, than 98% of the collecting public.
An interesting observation on investing in first day covers is the following. Over the years I have observed many people who have bought FDCs issue after issue, year after year, sometimes in duplicated quantities, obviously under the belief that they were making an investment (and this usually at a Philatelic Counter, or through the Philatelic Bureau - two of the sources most likely to have the lowest returns). Now, most people, if they invested a sum in shares, would be checking the financial pages regularly to see how their investment was doing. They might possibly have watched the same pages before they made their choice. So they checked the saleability of their purchase before and after the act. These people who "invest" in FDCs over the years have almost without exception never checked on the potential sale value of their purchases. Why not ?  Do they really not want to know ?  Is it that they want to own these items, but can only justify the spending by pretending to themselves that they are not "spending", they are "investing" ?  Remember that even on a level market, there will always be a difference between buying and selling prices, whether this is the dealer's profit margin, or the auctioneer's charges. Pure investing and collecting seldom go together. For example, on recent results, it is quite clear that if you want to put together a collection of fairly standard covers, you are best not to buy them when they are new. If you wait for a couple of years they are almost always cheaper. BUT the collector's natural feelings and instincts come to the fore - most don't want to wait, but want the new items now. If this description fits you then you should be honest with yourself; you may be a pure collector, or a collector with an eye to investment, but please admit that you are not a pure investor.

IT IS possible to put together an interesting, worthwhile, and valuable collection of British First Day Covers. How do you do it ?
{a} You get interested. No hobby should be pursued without interest. You should only do it if you are drawn to doing it. Pretty soon, you will quite naturally know whether you are interested or not.
{b} You get knowledge. Generally speaking, interest promotes learning, and that learning increases the interest. Do as much of the following as possible; speak to other collectors (and I mean collectors plural, because each has their own opinions, and a spread of opinion is useful), speak to dealers (again plural), go to any stamp events you can (stamp fair, philatelic exhibition, stamp club, auction, talks and lectures - even if they are not directly related to first day covers, you cannot fail to learn something), read articles, read books, browse the internet.
{c} Be different from others. Collections are individual things. There are no laid down rules. Just as the variety and idiosyncrasies of people is what makes them fascinating, so it is with a collection.
{d} Know prices. It is perfectly all right to pay a bit over the odds now and again for something that you really like or want, but don't overpay too much. If you follow {a} and {b} above, you shouldn't go far wrong. In fact, many collectors manage to fund the purchase of scarcer items by picking up "finds" here and there, when they can pick up something they don't actually need for their own collection, but they know that they are looking at a bargain and can pass it on at a profit.
{e} Get to know and understand quality. Look at hundreds, if not thousands, of covers in order to get a feel for what is available, and what quality it is reasonable to demand.
Why not do something different ?  Collect FDCs relating to places you have been. Specialise in subjects that are close to your heart. Look out for further stamps or covers (even if they are not British) that tie in with covers in your collection. Or picture postcards. Or matchbox covers, or cigarette cards, or beer labels . . . other collectors will probably think that you are a bit off-the-wall, but envy your interest and enjoyment all the same.

Robert Murray
Page created Friday 19 December 2003. Copyright Robert Murray 2003 to 2016.
Last updated Monday 9 May 2016.

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